Law School Case Brief
Barrows v. Jackson - 346 U.S. 249, 73 S. Ct. 1031 (1953)
Racial restrictive covenants cannot be enforced in equity against African-American purchasers because such enforcement would constitute state action denying equal protection of the laws to African-Americans, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution.
Plaintiffs Olive B. Barrows and several others landowners, including defendant Leola Jackson, owned residential estates in the same neighborhood in Los Angeles. The parties all entered into a covenant, running with the land, restricting the use and occupancy their lands to persons of the white or Caucasian race, and obligating the signers to incorporate this restriction in all transfers of their land. Jackson conveyed a restricted parcel of her land to a non-Caucasian. Barrows and other landowners filed a lawsuit in California state court seeking to enforce the restrictive covenant and to recover damages for Jackson's breach of that covenant. For breaching the covenant in both respects, an action at law for damages was brought against defendant by other signers. No action was taken against the non-Caucasian occupants. Jackson filed a demurrer to the compliant, which the trial court sustained without leave to amend. The trial court relied on the holding in Shelley v. Kramer, 334 US 1 (1940), that racial restrictive covenants could not be enforced in equity against African-American purchasers because such enforcement would constitute state action denying Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights to African-Americans. The state appellate court affirmed the trial court's decision; the state supreme court denied a hearing. Barrows and the other landowners were granted a writ of certiorari.
Were the racial restrictive covenants enforceable in equity against the African-American purchasers of Jackson's land?
Affirming the lower court's order sustaining a demurrer to the petition of Barrows and others, the Supreme Court of the United States held that because enforcement of the restrictive covenant at law would have constituted state action, the state's enforcement would have denied minorities of their right to enjoy property on the same terms as Caucasians or white persons, which would be a denial of equal protection of the law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. While noting that Jackson's constitutional rights were not jeopardized, the Court permitted the Jackson's assertion of others' rights where the need to protect fundamental rights would be denied if the action for damages was maintained. Thus, Jackson could rely on the invasion of the rights of others—the African-American buyers—in her defense to the action filed by Barrows and others.
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